Few elements of style can harm your work the way an overbusy, cluttered sentence can. But reading about cluttered sentences from a theoretical standpoint is one thing — seeing one such sentence is entirely different.
Let’s construct a glorious Example:
My ratonnastick, being a perfectly good fellow at heart who always knew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick–was simply ecstatic about being prepared with a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and an uncanny amount of lemon juice, which added just that extra little bit of punch, so necessary for satisfying the palates of members of high society.
It’s okay to write a sentence such as this one in a first draft*; it’s negligent to have it in a finished manuscript. A sentence like this is an offense against any potential reader you might hope to court. This sentence wanders from one idea to the next, uncertain of what it’s trying to say; so it ends up saying too much. Why don’t we break down all the pieces of information in the sentence below:
- My ratonnastick is a good fellow at heart.
- He always knew his lot in life.
- He lived only as a ratonnastick could live.
- My ratonnastick was ecstatic about the method of his preparation.
- He was prepared with an assortiment of condiments.
- The lemon juice adds an extra punch.
- Members of high society have a taste for lemon juice.
That’s…seven(7!) unique ideas we’ve uncovered tucked underneath the conjunctions and dependent clauses of our long sentence. Can you figure out the main clause? Scroll past the picture of our revered lord and saviour, the ratonnastick, to find out!
That’s right, the main clause in this sentence is equivalent to, “My ratonnastick was ecstatic about the method of his preparation.” I’ve cut the list of condiments, because they’re all prepositional phrases that take up too much space. Better to be frugal in your choice of words.
So much of the information in this sentence is excessive, bloated and delivered in a way that is non-conducive to holding the reader’s interest. (This would be a good moment to remind you that you’ll usually be writing with at least some implied Reader in mind. For these blog posts, my implied Reader is an older, more dashing version of me who still considers his earlier self hilarious. Ergo, the jokes.)
Let’s rewrite this sentence in a way that doesn’t make the Reader want to gorge their eyes out, shall we?
, beingwas a perfectly good fellow at heart. whoHe alwaysknew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick. That’s why he —was simplyecstatic about being cooked. preparedThe chefs used a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and some an uncanny amount oflemon juice. , whichThis last ingredient adds ed just thatextra little bit ofpunch, so necessary for satisfying the palates ofwhich plays well with members of high society.
As you see, in addition to rearranging this sentence, I’ve also changed a few details. But let’s clear it up:
My ratonnastick was a perfectly good fellow at heart. He knew his lot in life and lived as only a ratonnastick could–on a stick. That’s why he was ecstatic about being cooked. The chefs used a pinch of salt, a little pepper, several squirts of ketchup and some lemon juice. This last ingredient adds extra punch, which plays well with members of high society.
Bit strange, but I think we’ve found a motif to all these blog posts, and it’s onnnastick. More importantly, this is now a legible paragraph. Shorter sentences interplay with longer ones, and create an ebb and flow that makes this easy to read. This rewrite differentiates the different pieces of information. It gives them space to breathe and allows the reader to wrap his mind around what’s going on; in a word, it makes the writing more comprehensible.
All of this is not to say that you should avoid using longer, more complex sentences. You might seek to create moods that a long sentence can imbue much better than a short one; confusion, uncertainty, paranoia come to mind as three such moods. Or you might be aiming for a particular effect, as Rachel Cusk is in her Outline trilogy**.
But what does great sentence sage June Casagrande say about the question of short versus long sentence use?
Allow me to end this debate once and for all. Here’s how you should look at it: Brevity is a tool. It’s a very powerful tool. You don’t have to use it. But you have to know how. If you’re going to use long sentences, it should be by choice, not due to bumbling ineptitude. Every long sentence can be broken up into shorter ones, and if you don’t know how–if you don’t see within your long sentences groupings of simple, clear ideas–it will show.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
This post by no means advocates the exclusive use of short sentences — that’s a one-way street to monotonous writing, which will bore the Reader to tears — as a novice editor on Fiverr, I’ve encountered several lifetimes’ worth of that problem. Rather, my aim here is to ask you to avoid use of meandering, rambling sentences that keep going on and on and on and on and on well past their end point. Be cautious in your verbosity, dear Reader. Oh, and one last piece of advice from Casagrande’s chapter on the topic:
Only someone who can see ideas in their most pared-down form can begin stringing them together in ways that make an outrageously long sentence work.
So you see, size DOES matter. Just…not in the way you think.
*This one is comically cluttered…as is my mind.
**To get a taste of the kind of writing Cusk is known for, you should read my essay on Transit, which imitates the author’s style to some success.
Thank you for reading, everyone! If you enjoyed this third post in the series, but haven’t checked out the previous two – go back to the link at the top and take a few minutes to browse through them! As always, I owe a debt of gratitude to June Casagrande and her book on sentence construction.
Got any questions? Leave them in the comments down below!
I’ve also got a YouTube channel, where I produce video essays about games and all manner of nonsense. I also review fantasy and sci-fi novels over on The Fantasy Hive – and I’m far from alone. Check it out, it’s got wonderful content, we’re doing #WomenInSFF features for all of July!